Cart (카트) – ★★★★☆

Cart (카트)

Cart (카트)

With only 3 months more service until she becomes a regular employee, supermarket cashier Seon-hee (Yeom Jeong-ah (염정아) works diligently for the position that will enable her to provide greater stability for her family. Despite the difficulties of raising wayward teenage son Tae-yeong (Do Kyeong-soo (도경수) and a young daughter (Kim Soo-an (김수안) alone, Seon-hee strives to make ends meet for them all. Yet when the supermarket officials decide to layoff all the workers in favor of cheaper labor, the mostly female staff – many of whom have worked with the company for years – are outraged. Led by fellow cashier Hye-mi (Moon Jeong-hee (문정희) and cleaner Soon-rye (Kim Yeong-ae (김영애), the women begin to unionize and issue demands for reinstatement. However when their efforts are ultimately ignored, the women decide that more drastic strike action is necessary for their voices to be heard.

Seon-hee witnesses abuse at work, yet her desire for job stability keeps her silent

Seon-hee witnesses abuse at work, yet her desire for job stability keeps her silent

Based on a true story, director Boo Ji-young’s (부지영) Cart (카트) premiered to high acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival, as well as later back home in native Korea at Busan. The drama is an incredibly impressive exploration of the issues plaguing the temporary workforce in contemporary Korea. From the very moment Cart begins director Boo effectively portrays the grueling monotony of menial labor, employing a brilliantly washed out colour palette in conjunction with fluid camerawork that depicts workers performing machine-like tasks under the watchful eyes of aggressive management, evoking the same sensibilities as Charlie Chaplin’s classic Modern Times. Rather than individuals, the workers are consistently framed as cogs in a machine hurriedly operating the factory-esque supermarket whilst robotically repeating phrases such as, “We love you, customer!” Director Boo wonderfully juxtaposes such hard work and empty slogans with the awful humiliations dealt by the customers and executives, while the workers themselves tolerate such human rights abuses simply in order to keep their jobs.

The contrast between such scenes and the representation of the characters personal lives offer a powerful, provocative glimpse at class and gender warfare as well as social injustice in modern Korea. As the vast majority of the workers are underprivileged women, the film depicts the daily struggles of the female workforce as they endure abusive employment in order to desperately stave off poverty, emphasising an array of feminist issues with potent insight. Director Boo has crafted an empowering social rights drama, one which is a true rarity in both current Korean and international cinema. The range of characters within the film, each with their own dilemmas, poignantly capture the challenges facing modern women in society. While Seon-hee and Hye-mi struggle to raise their children alone, Soon-rye exposes the plight of the elderly, while the inclusion of married protagonists as well as disaffected graduate Mi-jin (Cheon Woo-hee (천우희) convey the breadth and scale of discourses effecting contemporary women. Cart is a truly refreshing alternative to male-centered narratives, one that unequivocally portrays working class women as heroines in their own right.

The mostly female workers keep in good spirits as they demand reinstatement

The mostly female workers keep in good spirits as they demand reinstatement

The power of Cart lies in the conflict between the mostly female workers and the male executives, as the unfair dismissals result in unionization, and the ignorance of which in turn spurs strike action. Director Boo structures the escalation of hostilities between both sides with skill, as the workers who stage peaceful protests with colourful clothes and slogans are confronted by the dark bullying tactics of the company. In so blatantly portraying the corruption and underhand manner of the corporation, director Boo has produced a challenging and provocative film that will undoubtedly ruffle feathers amongst the conservative upper classes, who are depicted offering bribes, employing gangsters, and hurting innocents in the bid to continue profits and to save face. Yet director Boo also implicates government agencies in the scandal, particularly the police force and their unnecessary brutality, as the women peacefully demonstrate against injustice, making Cart not only an insightful film but a courageous one too.

Cart does however suffer from a case of over ambition as too many protagonists feature, which ultimately makes it difficult to invest in all of the narrative threads that arise. All the characters certainly add a perspective on the discourses through the film, yet as there are so many tangents it’s difficult to invest in every one. Screen time is mostly ascribed to Seon-hee and her family, and an impressive contrast is made between her and her difficult son Tae-yeong, implying the conditioning of the populace as automatons as one that begins from a young age. However Tae-young’s story line, in which he becomes attached to prospective girlfriend Soo-kyeong (Ji Woo (지우), is a little trite and appears to be a device to attract teenage audiences. Scenes such as these, and others that feature the quite cheesy musical score, sometimes threaten to put Cart in TV drama territory, yet director Boo never lets the story stagnate and consistently keeps the drama moving apace.

As tensions escalate, Seon-hee and Hye-mi fight back against their affluent male abusers

As tensions escalate, Seon-hee and Hye-mi fight back against their affluent male abusers

Verdict:

Cart is moving, provocative glimpse at class and gender warfare as well as social injustice in modern Korea. In depicting the unfair working conditions and the incredibly strong women attempting to stave off poverty, director Boo Ji-young has crafted an empowering social rights drama, one that examines the status of human rights and feminist issues with insight and sincerity. A powerful film, Cart is a real rarity in both contemporary Korean and international cinema.

★★★★☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014
Woo-seok blasts Chun Doo-hwan's regime in an explosive court room battle

The Attorney (변호인) – ★★★★☆

The Attorney (변호인)

The Attorney (변호인)

Gathering over 11 million admissions during its cinematic run, director Yang Woo-seok’s (양우석) highly impressive courtroom drama The Attorney (변호인) has certainly struck a chord with Korean audiences. Inspired by the early years of former president Roh Moo-hyun, the film explores the anti-communist witch hunts and suppression of human rights that targeted students during dictator Chun Doo-hwan’s regime. The Attorney has clearly struck a nerve with film-goers, many of whom were alive – and victimized – during the persecutions, and with regular protests held regarding current President Park-hye’s administration the film is timely indeed.

The Attorney is an incredibly powerful film and a stunning debut for first-time writer/director Yang Woo-seok. The pacing and structure is wonderfully constructed as the underlying messages within are gradually introduced and explored through the central protagonists. The tendency to delve into melodrama is luckily side-stepped and the film is all the stronger for it, with actor Song Kang-ho providing a phenomenal performance that cannot fail to incite emotional resonance within audiences, Korean or otherwise.

Song Woo-seok is very successful is he embarks on his quest to be a top attorney

Song Woo-seok is very successful is he embarks on his quest to be a top attorney

During the early 1980s, attorney Song Woo-seok (Song Kang-ho (송강호) is continually ridiculed by his peers for only graduating high school, yet they are soon embarrassed when Song’s ambition and drive to succeed places him as one of the top lawyers in Busan. As his business is on the verge of expanding, a friend’s son is mysteriously kidnapped by the military authorities. Agreeing to take on the case at great personal risk to himself and his family, Song begins to investigate the human rights abuses perpetrated by Chun Doo-hwan’s regime, leading to an explosive courtroom battle.

The Attorney would be a great accomplishment for any filmmaker, yet as director Yang Woo-seok’s first film it is an incredible achievement. The skill with which he guides the story in no way conveys his novice status, as the pacing of the story and wonderfully fluid camerawork expertly absorbs the audience within the film. Furthermore director Yang’s subtle use of colours is continually highly effective, from the warm hues of the family homestead to the washed-out palette used for scenes of torture. The impressive technical prowess is bolstered by a very well written and extremely well paced script, one that subtly guides the audience through the issues of 1980s Korea (and more specifically, Busan) by way of the struggles of attorney Song Woo-seok. While the film is concerned with human rights abuses, such scenes are only introduced after considerable time has been spent constructing the protagonists, heightening the impact of events significantly. As such it is impossible not to invest in Song’s plight, and the approximately two hour running time simply flies by.

Woo-weok is shocked to discover Jin-woo has been tortured and vows to defend him

Woo-seok is shocked to discover Jin-woo has been tortured and vows to defend him

It is impossible to discuss The Attorney without mentioning Song Kang-ho’s electric performance. Song has a remarkable gift for making his characters likeable and relatable and as the titular lawyer, he consistently conveys a man of dignity who strives for better for himself and his family. Song infuses the role with morality and determination to succeed in conjunction with a comic humility that is ever-endearing, from the rags-to-riches story of his early years through to his successes as a top attorney in Busan. As such, his outrage at the incarceration and torture that transpires is truly palpable while his battle against the insurmountable odds is poignant and inspiring.

Song Kang-ho is also supported by a great cast including the ever-reliable Oh Dal-su – once again in a comic sidekick role – as well as Kim Yeong-ae as a humble restaurant owner. Kim’s performance in particular is incredibly moving following her son’s disappearance, restraining her desperation perfectly as to not step into the realm of melodrama. Kwak Do-won steps into his villainous role with great aplomb as the wonderfully vile as the chief anti-communist torturer. His arrogance and disdain for any who criticise Chun’s military regime makes him the perfect love-to-hate scoundrel, yet the basis on real life events grants a potency that cannot fail to instill anger.

While powerfully moving, The Attorney does have issues. Ironically while the film itself is based on Roh Moo-hyun’s life, the change of name for the lead role insinuates that censorship and freedom of expression are still under threat in contemporary Korea. The torture sequences, so expertly achieved in director Chung Ji-young’s National Security, don’t contain the same gravitas as to convey the horrors of Chun’s regime and what’s at stake in Song’s/Roh’s crusade against injustice. These are small points, yet ones that make  The Attorney just shy of greatness.

Woo-seok blasts Chun Doo-hwan's regime in an explosive court room battle

Woo-seok blasts Chun Doo-hwan’s regime in an explosive court room battle

Based on the early years of former president Roh Moo-hyun, The Attorney (변호인) is a powerful and utterly absorbing court room drama. Director Yang Woo-seok’s debut is wonderfully structured and character-centered, with the exploration of human rights abuses during the Chun Doo-hwan regime naturally emerging through the story that unfolds. Featuring a brilliant performance by Song Kang-ho as the titular lawyer, The Attorney is a timely and poignant film that cannot fail to incite emotional resonance.

★★★★☆

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